On June 3, instead of heading to his university as usual, Quang, a 28-year-old lecturer, traveled by car with a tour crew from Hanoi to Quang Binh Province. This was the start of his conquest of Son Doong, the world’s largest natural cave in central Vietnam.
Whilst Son Doong is a dream to many, this same dream seems to hold tenfold more significance to Quang, who was born with a defect in his right hand.
An avid traveler, Quang started going on solo trips right after he graduated from high school. His most memorable adventure was a motorbike trip through Vietnam on a trusty Honda Win with an older student in the summer of 2017. That same year, Quang learned about Son Doong through videos and photos, developing a strong desire to experience its majestic beauty with his own eyes. However, tour bookings proved full until the end of 2018.
“It was a big dream. Many had waited for one or even two years to no avail, so I thought it may be the same for me.” This year, he accidentally stumbled on an advertisement for post-Covid tours to Son Doong and signed up within seconds.
The day he filled out the application form seemed just as nerve-wracking as the day he sat his university entrance exam. “I answered all the questions truthfully, focusing on my stamina and daily workouts,” he said, adding he omitted mentioning his right hand.
“Ever since I was little, I was motivated to achieve things others thought I couldn’t do.”
Accompanying Vu Ngoc Quang (right) was his 50-year-old aunt (middle) who lives abroad and his close friend.
After submitting his application, Quang and his family were even more ecstatic to learn he had entered the next round than when he got admitted to university. Quang was the first in his family to get this close to conquering the Son Doong dream.
The second round consisted of a face-to-face interview with travel agency staff. Quang subsequently took a six-day break off work without telling his colleagues the reason. He was scared he wouldn’t be able to actually go, since the tour took six days and five nights, of which three were spent inside the cave.
Three to four days prior to departure, Quang had trouble falling asleep in anticipation of the trip. Part of him was excited but an even bigger part feared not being able to participate. “In the past, I was always rejected. Even when I got into dance school, I was not allowed to pursue my passion since the instructors didn’t think me capable.”
This anxiety followed Quang all the way to Dong Hoi Town and only dissipated after the first crew dinner, when he talked to Deb Limbert, a 60-year-old British expert. During the conversation, she advised him to be extremely careful and noted she would pay him special attention.
Deb, who had worked eight years at Oxalis Adventure, the only travel agency currently in charge of Son Doong tours, was surprised about Quang’s situation since not once during the application process did he mention his defect. “However, I ultimately let him join because he is young and strong with trekking experience and a lot of determination. I don’t think he had any particular problem, he was calm and quiet throughout the trip.”
According to the expert, the agency has a special protocol to assist injured travelers on tour, with a security staff member assigned to follow and help Quang throughout the trip.
After their first night in Phong Nha, the crew begun their journey through the National Park forest. They trekked over rocky paths, tall rocks, and streams to reach En Cave (Hang En), the entrance to Son Doong.
Prior to the trip, Quang used to think the photos and videos had exaggerated the beauty of Son Doong. Upon setting foot in the cave, he couldn’t help but stand in awe of its majesty, saying “it almost seemed like there was a beach within the cave.”
Cavers and tents appear as tiny dots inside colossal En Cave.
In order to reach the campsite, the crew had to climb over a large pile of rocks. From there, they could see a large cave opening and a light ray seeping through. Next to it was a clear lake where they could swim. Right from the next day, if a traveler proved unable to proceed, they were required to return to Phong Nha.
On the second day, the crew continued on their way through the forest in En Cave for about two hours to reach the narrow opening to Son Doong, which required them to wear safety belts before descent.
The entire path down the cliff was dim. Quang had to face the rocky wall to see and ensure his own safety. Once he reached the ground, he turned around to a breathtaking view of stalactites.
“When I looked at En Cave, I was already overjoyed just seeing its gigantic size and enchanting beauty. However, standing inside Son Doong made me feel like En Cave could not compare to the world’s largest cave.”
Quang makes his way through En Cave.
Before the trip, he thought the cave surface would be flat, or in other words, a walk in the park. In reality, caves have a diverse landscape that includes towering cliffs, sand dunes, and even spiky rocks formed over millennia by running water. Every 20 to 30 minutes, Quang felt as if he had transitioned to a new movie set.
From the camping site, Quang saw a sinkhole far away. Wherever the sunrays landed, a green plot of plants appeared. “In that moment I was stunned, unable to grasp what I was seeing. It looked like a forest with mobile clusters of clouds.”
After unpacking and a quick rest, the crew was brought to an underground river. Contrary to the thoughts Quang had formed of a large lake where he could relax, the group was equipped with life vests and went deep down. Past the steep cliff lay a narrow gully, barely large enough for a few people to pass through. Being one of the last ones to go, Quang grew tense hearing the screams of those in front.
“As soon as my feet touched the icy water, I screamed because it was agonizingly cold. I think the water temperature was around 12 to 13 degrees Celsius.”
When Deb turned off the last flashlight, total darkness took over the space. Quang stood still for a while, unable to remember what he meant to say nor verbally form words.
U.S. news site Insider in June named Son Doong among “20 record-breaking natural wonders.”
The next day, the crew went deeper into the cave and wriggled their way through a tight arch. Since the structure was formed by rocks collapsing on top of one another, each person had to set aside their backpack before crawling through. Past the arch, the crew had to climb by rope over the first sinkhole to reach the second.
After traipsing over slippery pathways, the crew finally reached the Garden of Eden. Here, Quang’s breath was taken away once again by the magical sunrays falling through the holes above and the butterflies roaming the garden below. The crew then proceeded to the dark cave to learn about its unique inhabitants, including “blind fish” and “blind spiders”, all superbly adapted to blindly survive.
Quang immediately thought of Jules Verne’s sci-fi oeuvre Journey to the Center of the Earth when he laid his eyes on the transparent fish. Even after he returned home from the trip, he still occasionally envisions another world tucked inside the center of the earth with its own ecosystem and unknown species.
“After the trip, no building seemed to impress me anymore. Manmade architectural masterpieces may be mighty and complex but to me they simply can’t compare to nature.”
On the fourth day, the crew conquered Vietnam’s Wall, a massive stalactite measuring hundreds of meters and formed alongside tectonic plate activity.
Quang admires the stunning beauty of Son Doong.
On the day, the group had to traipse through a shallow lake with thick mud underneath. Some zones had sharp rocks formed through water erosion, making the going tricky at times. To Quang, the cliff wall was the most laborious endeavor, forcing him to maneuver over slippery, steep and dangerous surfaces.
All participants wore safety belts and ascended with the support of security personnel. Once they reached the top of the wall, they continued through the dark forest for another two hours before reaching the end of the expedition. Quang vividly remembers when he had to crawl along a precipice or when a sharp rock ripped his shoes. Sometimes when they climbed a cliff, Quang had to tightly wrap the rope around his forearm, the pressure leaving painful marks on his skin.
When asked about his feelings after the trip, Quang wittily replied: “The only thing I could think of then was how badly I needed to shower. Over the entire trip I only got to shower twice at En Cave’s and the cold underground lake.”
Before the trip, Quang had already prepared himself mentally for the arduous challenges that lay ahead. However, once he completed the trip, he found it was easier than he had expected, thanks to the constant support.
Each crew has only 10 travelers but around 40 security staff members who monitor the entire trip. One staff member typically looks after the wellbeing and safety of one to two travelers. The other staff are in charge of luggage, equipment, necessary items.
During the trip, staff arrive first at camping spots to set up tents and prepare meals. The majority of recruits are locals. One person can carry up to 30 kilograms worth of baggage whilst moving quickly and expertly in flimsy flip flops, Quang described in admiration.
“On the trip, I enjoyed delicious meals and had my own changing room and toilet. As soon as the crew departed though, the space returned to its original state as if we had never set foot there. Waste is cleanly collected to bring outside to make natural fertilizer for plants. I think this is a meaningful action to protect the environment,” he said.
Quang thought many instances during the trip worth sharing with friends and loved ones. Back in Hanoi, he found it difficult to express the moving experience he had in Phong Nha. No words could capture the adrenaline rushing through him as he stood before the natural beauty of Son Doong.
“If I have anything to say, it is that everyone should go on this trip and see for themselves the untouched beauty of this colossal landscape. The stunning nature will raise awareness and make people more conscious of the environment.”
Photos courtesy of Vu Ngoc Quang